The start of a school year is usually about pens, pencils, books and uniforms. But this year, students and parents are having to add vaccines, masks and rapid antigen tests to that list.
It's safe to say this is a back-to-school like no other.
Personally, I have always loved the start of a new school year.
As a child I enjoyed school and loved that I got new pencils, books and a bag. It also meant reconnecting with my friends.
As a teacher I loved it because the new school year marked the beginning of the next step of a journey - especially for students starting school or transitioning from primary to secondary school. It was exciting.
And as a parent I loved it because it meant relief. While it was great having the kids around, after six weeks I didn't have to find things for three bored children to do anymore.
But working with children's education charity The Smith Family, I can see that for many families it is not an exciting time - it's a time of increased stress and anxiety.
For thousands of families living with disadvantage, going back to school just adds to their financial burden. It's expensive. Many parents will be juggling ongoing bills, skyrocketing rent and even the weekly food shop with the additional expense of shoes, uniforms and books, to ensure their children have even the essentials to fit in at school.
This year, as for the past two years, COVID has added an extra level of stress. Many parents are in insecure work or have even lost jobs as a result of the pandemic. Then there has been the disruption to schooling, with remote learning meaning that some students have disengaged from their learning.
The feedback I am getting is that some students don't want to go back to school, particularly in senior years. Parents have told me they are concerned about whether their children have fallen behind and whether they will reconnect with their learning if they go back to school.
Re-engaging is important. To help, The Smith Family is running a second pilot of an at-home, one-on-one tutoring program, called Catch-Up Learning, using qualified, experienced teachers. The first pilot showed promising evidence of the program's ability to engage students and support greater-than-expected gains in literacy and numeracy.
Another concern for families that The Smith Family works with is a lack of digital access.
I've been told by families with four children that they have had to roster time for them on the household's one device - often only a mobile phone. And that assumes there is reliable internet access.
Before the pandemic, around 23 per cent of students on The Smith Family's Learning for Life program didn't have access to a device like a laptop or reliable internet. In the past two years we have distributed over 5000 Digital Inclusion Packs, which include a device, reliable internet, and support with digital literacy skills and technical support. The number of families without digital access has fallen to 15 per cent, but it's still too high. How is a student to properly engage with their learning without the necessary tools?
For students, there are mixed feelings about returning to face-to-face learning. Some are anxious, but others are relieved to be able to reconnect with friends and re-engage socially.
The COVID pandemic has shown us that schools are more than just places of formal education. It's now obvious they are essential parts of our communities and play an important role in general wellbeing. They are places where young people learn to develop social skills, learn to interact with others, and develop frameworks about teamwork and leadership. They're also spaces for sharing ideas.
All of these are important parts of psychological development as they start building those friendship and trust groups that are so important. When you don't have that, it can affect your self-esteem.
Teachers and schools are doing their usual wonderful job - but they can only do so much.
We are better prepared for returning to face-to-face schooling than we were in 2020 and 2021. But these are still stressful, uncertain times, and students continue to need all the support we can provide them. That may be making sure they have all the tools they need. It could be providing access to catch-up learning programs to help them re-engage. Or it might just be working together as a community to give them the best opportunity to make the most of their education. Our students deserve nothing less.
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